This is one of the most frequent questions I get. Whether someone has lost a parent, a child, or a friend, we want to console and bring comfort but its hard to know what to say. I think every situation is different and what works for one person may not work for another but here are my suggestions:
1) Just be there. Its not necessarily what you say (or don't say). A person grieving just wants to know that people care. Its one of the main reasons we have funerals. Besides letting family and friends say goodbye and come to terms that the person is in fact dead, its also a time to come together and console one another. Don't worry too much about what you are going to say. Just show up and be there. The simple phrase, "I care and I am here" is good enough. Too often people distance themselves from grieving people because they are afraid they will say the wrong thing. Don't be afraid of saying the wrong thing - not being there is much worse.
2) Listen. Being nervous about saying the wrong thing means that sometimes people start running their mouth and don't let the grieving person get a word in edgewise. Let us talk about whatever we want. It might be about how sad we are or the funeral arrangements or even something unrelated like the weather. We may laugh or we may cry or just sit there quietly but whatever we do, its okay.
3) You don't need to fix the situation. In fact you can't. We have to walk through the fire of grief to get to the other side and if we don't deal with it today, we will deal with it later. Don't try to defuse the grief by changing the subject away from the person who died. If we start talking about the person who died, that's okay. Its also okay if we are crying. Its not your job nor can you stop us from crying or feeling sad. Just be there and listen.
4) Don't pretend it didn't happen or the person who died never existed. Because people are afraid of making us cry, they stop talking about the person who died. We WANT to talk about our loved one and hear how they made a difference in your life. We want to hear your memories and we want to talk about our memories. Yes.. we might cry... but that is okay.
5) Its all normal. Each person is different and whatever works for them is what is normal. Some people want to sit at home and cry. Some people may want to actually go out to a party and try to forget for a bit about their grief. Whatever the response it is normal and fine.
6) Offer specific help. Grieving people frequently hear, "Let me know what we can do to help." It is good intentioned and I'm sure the person offering really means it. The problem is that the grieving person doesn't know what they need or if they do, they don't want to ask for it. Instead offer something specific -- "My family would like to come clean your house before the funeral. Is Monday good?" Or "I make a great manicotti. Can I bring some tonight for your family?" With that said, the word OFFER specific help is important. Give us the option of saying no as well. We may be sick of eating our fourth pan of manicotti in as many days or the fear of someone seeing my bathroom that has been sorely neglected while caring for my dying loved one is not worth having it cleaned.
6) There is no timeline. For me, the first few months weren't too bad. I was busy planning a funeral and cleaning up a life that had been neglected in the month's leading up to my mother's death. Plus it just didn't seem real. There was no possible way she was REALLY dead. It felt like she was just at her house waiting for me to show up. It wasn't until three months or so after her death that it suddenly felt real and crushing grief set in. By then, I'm sure my friends thought I was handling it well and had moved on to my new reality. So don't be surprised if three months or even three years later something sets us off and the grief suddenly become fresh again.
And truly.... just the fact that you are reading this post wondering what you can do to help your friend means that you will do just fine. You care. And that is enough.